Loïc Blondiaux: “Nobody believes anymore that the system can reform itself”

An interview with Loïc Blondiaux, professor of political science at the Sorbonne in Paris and a researcher at the European Center for Sociology and Political Science (CESSP) and the Center for Policy Research (CRPS) of the Sorbonne, in International Politics and Society journal:

New instruments of participatory democracy, such as citizen meetings with participants drawn by lot, are sometimes presented as the solution to the crisis of representative democracy. What does that reveal about the current state of French society?

It’s striking about the current democratic crisis in France, but also in the entire Western world, that instruments such as the sortition-based community meetings, where participants are selected at random, are spreading so successfully, and that such democratic innovations are generating high hopes. Who would have thought that political actors would advocate the idea of a third parliamentary chamber, determined wholly or partly by lot, or even the idea of replacing the Senate with a similar process? This interest in sortition attests to the great disrepute that traditional institutions of representative politics have fallen into. The same also applies to the “RIC” (référendum d’initiative citoyenne) promoted by the gilets jaunes, which aims to enable both citizens’ initiatives in constitutional and legal matters and the repeal of laws and the dismissal of elected representatives.

How do you explain the high expectations people have of these participatory instruments?
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Politics as a profession

In a recent debate with Etienne Chouard, among quite a few fallacies and hypocritical talking points, Raphaël Enthoven makes an interesting point regarding the role of training in politics (about 23 minutes into the recording) [my transcription and translation, corrections welcome]:

The fact is that, as Plato argues, politics is a profession.

[ Chourad interjects: “Plato was an aristocrat!” ]

Politics is a profession, even if you ask a democratic such as yourself. Even if you ask yourself. How would you explain the place that you accord in [your book] “Notre Cause Commune” [“Our Common Cause”], in your work, in your blog, always, since 2005, to constituent workshops? The fundamental role that you assign to instruction and to training of citizens? Isn’t it in order to give citizens the means to exercise correctly, properly and competently (if you excuse the adverb) the powers they were temporarily entrusted with?

It is obvious that politics is a profession and requires information. This profession, this information, must be open to all. There should be an equality of opportunity, there should be a wealth of opportunities for democratic practice and learning, including through sortition. Saying, however, that the equality of rights, the equality of competence would justify that each and every person would govern successively, as they did in Athens – a very small city – appointed by sortition and as a part time job, ignores the fact that it is the exercise of power that relieves incompetence, unprofessionalism, and lack of skills.

Instead of the Popular Initiative, let’s try the democracy of chance

François de Closets writes in l’Opinion.

The Gilets Jaunes, the coalition, the opposition, everybody seems to support the Popular Initiative (référendum d’initiative citoyenne, or RIC). This mechanism for popular participation would offer both a renovating reform of our republic and a way out of the crisis. Wouldn’t it, however, be a false solution? Wouldn’t it be embraced more because it is in the air rather than through thorough reflection? Wouldn’t it be masking a real solution? “Let the people speak”, who can object to that? No one, and it is for this reason that we must not give in to moral terrorism.

Popular sovereignty, the foundation of democracy, struggles with the question of the government. Beyond the scale of the city, even beyond that of a village, collective power is no longer operative. Representative democracy must be utilized. Every nation has arrived at this conclusion. That is, popular sovereignty does not mean governing but appointing and recognizing rulers. It also means that the citizens see themselves as being represented by those who speak and act in their name.

Despite this delegation, the people remain the ultimate source of truth, their word being superior to that of their representatives. In particular, their word must be imposed through referendum when it comes to the supreme law: the constitution. Representative democracy is therefore a compromise due to the impossibility of the ideal of direct democracy.

A crutch. In practice the system risks the formation of an enclosed political class which usurps power from the people. Conversely, direct democracy can be used by manipulators who under the pretext of “letting the people speak” impose their point of view on the majority. Real democracy, that of the general will, is therefore a historical construction which must fend off both of those perversions. The RIC should be examined from this perspective.
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The Gilets Jaunes: what are the prospects for sortition?

An article in RTL by Laure-Hélène de Vriendt and AFP (original in French, Dec. 29, 2018):

Gilets Jaunes marching in Montmartre

Perspective: Some among the Gilets Jaunes propose using citizen participation via sortition in order to create a list for the European elections.

To be used in “the great debate” by the government, proposed by some “gilets jaunes” for the European elections, citizen participation via sortition is riding high, despite some limits emphasized by researchers.

Its detractors fear a “talk-shop where legitimacy is only up to chance”, undermining the foundations of elections. Its supporters praise “the equality of chance to participate in the debate” which sortition makes possible, a specialist in democratic systems working at the Paris VIII university.

In any case, the method has the support of the government: within the framework of “the great debate”, to be held in January and February as a response to the Gilets Jaunes movement, meetings of a hundred allotted citizens in each region will be held in order to give their opinion on the grievances mounting everywhere in France.

“The idea is to make sure that the Frenchpeople who are not necessarily those most involved in public life and public conversation can give their ideas about the debate and the proposals”, explained PM Édouard Philippe last week in Haute-Vienne.

“A much more diverse representation”
For prof. Loïc Blondiaux, a specialist in those matters in Paris I university, “it is a response to the crisis of representation”. Sortition “guarantees a much more diverse representation” because “if we look at the social makeup of Parliament, there are very few workers and wage earners, as opposed to the Gilets Jaunes and to the future assembly members of the “great debate”, emphasizes the researcher. “The representatives will not speak instead of the citizens but as citizens, it is a different voice”, he asserts.

Until now, civic participation via sortition never went above the local level in France. After an experiment during the summer with a national debate for the 5-year energy plan, it “reaches for the first time the national level, with the demand coming from below”, emphasizes Yves Sintomer.

Although citizens councils and participative budgeting using sorititon already exist in municipalities, he observes, “the only institutionalization of sortition at the national level is in trial juries”, going back to the revolution.
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Chouard: An allotted referendum chamber

Etienne Chouard, who has been the most vocal and consistent French advocate for sortition, is having somewhat of a day in the limelight in the context of the Gilets Jaunes protests. Chouard’s other major procedural proposal is the Popular initiative (in french: Referendum d’initiative citoyenne, often referred to as RIC).

A major issue with the popular initiative process, which is practiced in Switzerland and in various US states, is the ballot qualification process. In order to cut down the number of proposals on the ballot to a reasonable number, some hurdle has to be introduced. This hurdle is usually set as the collection of a large number of signatures. This makes qualification resource intensive and thus much easier for elite interests than for the average citizen.

In an interview (original in French), Chouard lays out an interesting alternative:

Chouard: “The RIC makes it possible for a group of people, or for a single person, to pose a question for the whole of the people. One of the first questions to ask ourselves is how many people can legitimately pose a question. In Italy, in Switzerland, it is 100,000, 500,000. It could be a million. It is for us to decide. […] I would say that a single person should be able to pose a question.”

Of course, the immediate consequence of this proposal, unlimited RIC without a minimal quota, is chaos. To handle this issue, the blogger proposes a “referendum chamber” whose members are allotted ordinary citizens, as in the Athenian democracy.

Also worth noting, and commending, the way Chouard affirms his democratic convictions in response to the standard question about the danger that his proposed system would produce bad policy:

I am a democrat. That means that I support the people deciding their destiny themselves and making the most important decisions themselves. At the same time if we are really democrats and honest, then we must expect that from time to time there would be issues, which can be important ones, about which the people would make decisions that would not be the ones we would make.

The full interview (almost an hour) is available as a video.

Le Figaro: Allotted French-people to participate in the national debate

Le Figaro (Dec. 21st, 2018) [original in French]:

“The Yellow Vests”: Allotted French-people to particpate in the national debate

The government wishes to have French-people selected via sortition participate in each region in meetings organized in the framework of the great debate promised as a response to the “Yellow Vests” crisis, announced [French PM] Edouard Philippe today. On the eve of a sixth Sunday of mobilization in France, the government and the coalition are hoping that emergency measures being adopted and the promise of this great debate will allow to diffuse the crisis.

“We believe that it would be wise to proceed with the appointment, the selection, the meetings which, in each one of the regions, could bring together about 100 French citizens chosen by lot, at random, which will discuss the result of this debate and participate in some way in this debate”, said the Prime Minister during a visit to Haute-Vienne.

“The idea is to have within those group some French-people which are not necessarily those most involved in public life, in the public debate, being able to give their opinions in the debate and to give their opinions regarding the proposals”, he added.

2018 review – sortition-related events

This is the end-of-year summary of notable sortition related events for 2018.

Sortition received some increasing attention in the English-speaking world in 2018. The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College has announced the creation of the Bard Institute for the Revival of Democracy through Sortition. Richard Askwith and Tim Dunlop published books advocating for sortition. Selina Thompson put on a sortition-themed play and organized a sortition-themed workshop. Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections was (dismissively) reviewed in the New York Times. Sortition was featured in the Left-leaning magazine Jacobin as well as on BBC radio, and was mentioned in the Washington Post. Canadian scientist and environmentalist expressed interest in drawing politicians from a hat.

Brett Hennig’s TED talk about sortition was featured by TED on their main page, generating a spike of interest in the idea, including by Beppe Grillo, co-founder of the Italian electorally successful Five Star movement. Another spike of interest in sortition followed media reports about the arrest of a sortition advocate who allegedly planned to blow himself up in an attempt to draw attention to the idea.

Late in the year, sortition was on the agenda of two mass-action movements: UK’s Extinction Rebellion and France’s Gilets Jaunes.

Earlier in the year elites continued to express their dissatisfaction with the way elections are turning out. A proposal was made to use sortition to improve citizen behavior. Former UK prime minister Gordon Brown made a similar suggestion in the context of Brexit. The Ireland abortion referendum that approved the recommendations of an allotted chamber was held as an example to emulate.

Reports about sortition being used or advocated at local government appeared in the press. An initiative for appointing judges by lot is under way in Switzerland. Charlie Pache, a Swiss sortition activist, promotes single issue allotted citizen panels. Academic conferences about sortition were held in Belgium and in the US.

In France, the discussion has moved beyond the initial stage of unfamiliarity into some substantive discussion of the details of applications of sortition. A member of La France insoumise who was allotted to its electoral committee expressed disillusionment with the process. Other FI activists claim that “so far, the allotted have had no real power”. Michel Quatrevalet, a power industry professional in France, complains that the so-called participatory democracy process that was part of the process for the creation of a French multi-year energy plan was a sham.